Three decades after television producer and director Elizabeth Allen’s family moved to Australia from Britain, she finally followed them. She had been living in Sydney for just two weeks before she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.
My family emigrated to Australia in the mid-1980s but I decided to stay on in London as I had just changed from a career in nursing to making documentaries for the BBC.
I visited every now and then, until four years ago, when my elder sister Jane was diagnosed with breast cancer.
My family needed me and the distance between Australia and London became too far, so I began to spend more time here, going back to the UK for one- off projects.
Jane was 52 years old, happily married with 3 daughters. She survived just 18 months and died two and a half years ago. Then last July I came back from the UK to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday but she was poorly when I arrived and died three days after her birthday.
After my Australian residency was granted, I arrived in Sydney to live permanently at the end of March, getting ready to start a new job at the ABC.
I’d experienced a few minor urinary symptoms a couple of weeks before I left London but thought nothing of it. A few days before I was a due to start my new job at the ABC, my bladder was causing me pain so, on my way to a meeting at the ABC, I popped into a doctors’ surgery in Bondi Junction thinking that maybe it was a kidney stone. The doctor gave me antibiotics and sent me for an ultrasound.
The ultra sound then turned into a CT scan and as I lay there I knew something was seriously up and all I could think about was my sister.
I’m sitting there alone as the doctor tells me like it is. No dressing it up – you have an ovarian tumour the size of a can of coke and it looks like it’s cancer.
I begin to get flash backs of my sister’s two-year battle against breast cancer, the metastases in her spine and brain.
The cruelty of this disease. This is not me he is talking about, this is the language they used for my sister. But it is me and I’m devastated.
I stumbled out into the sunshine and found a shaded spot where I could gather my thoughts.
Who should I phone? My closest friends were all asleep in the UK. Desperate, I called my twin brother even though I didn’t want to worry him. I needed someone. I broke down as I told him what they had found. We had lost our sister, our mum and now it looked as though I could lose my life. Why was this happening to us? Why was I being robbed of my life just at the beginning of a new start? It was one of the scariest moments in my life as I faced my own mortality for the first time.
I knew that if I was to survive this I had to act fast. The first was to get to see an oncologist as soon as possible so I started emailing my results to various oncologists and said to myself, the first one to give me an appointment was the one I was to go with.
Within a week, I had an appointment with Associate Professor Sam Saidi at Chris O’Brien Lifehouse. A week after that, I was in surgery.
The next morning, the Prof came round and told me it was Stage 2 cancer and, when I asked him if I would be OK, told me this is curable. I am not my sister. All of our minds and bodies are very unique and we all respond to diseases differently.
Now, because of my sister’s and grandmother’s cancer they are looking to see if I carry the BRCA gene. This might have an impact on my treatment but also my niece’s future.
When you get diagnosed with cancer one of things that goes through your mind is: could you have done something earlier? I often think if I only had gone to see the doctor in London when I first had those urinary symptoms then this cancer would not have got to Stage 2. But ovarian cancer is the silent killer, no pain, no easily palpable lumps to feel.
There should be more screening and more awareness as most ovarian cancers are diagnosed at Stage 3 or 4, making it much more difficult to treat.
It’s only been six weeks since my surgery and definitive diagnosis, a relatively short time but it’s altered my life path, possibly permanently.
On a practical level, instead of starting my life and career in Sydney I’m having chemotherapy once every three weeks.
On another level, this life path that I am on now has changed my perspective completely.
Having my body turn on me from the inside has made me realize I have to change from the inside and that requires a different approach. That is my life long lesson and the word that springs to mind to sum it up is balance – emotional, physical, spiritual balance.
I have often heard people talking about how out of darkness there is light. I know what they mean now. Before I was diagnosed I never knew how much I was loved. The love I feel from my family, my friends, from everyone has been so totally overwhelming. I feel more loved and cherished than ever before in my life so if cancer has given me a gift, then that’s a present that will stay with me forever.
My latest film for the BBC is about the political journalist Andrew Marr and his recovery from a stroke.
I got to learn a thing or two about recovery from Andrew. One of the things I asked him was why he thought this had happened to him and he said: ‘I never ask me why me, I think why not me’. That has stayed with me too.
Why not me, I am no different and cancer is indiscriminate.